Now more than ever, pop culture is about the small stuff — an obscure TV show, a few notes in a pop song, a tweet. To celebrate a year of micro moments, every day a new Grantland writer will highlight one specific thing — a Big Little Thing — that we won't soon forget.
Max Martini plays the nameless Navy SEAL commander in Captain Phillips. Here is a fairly comprehensive summary of his actions in the film: About two-thirds into the movie, he arrives in a black SUV on a tarmac in Virginia and has a very important phone call, during which he is informed that a commercial ship has been hijacked by Somali pirates while making a run between Oman and Mombasa. During the conversation he says, more or less, “I understand.” A little while later, he jumps out of the same transport plane, parachutes into the ocean off the coast of Somalia, boards a Navy ship, and pretends to be a hostage negotiator while planning the extraction of Captain Richard Phillips from the Maersk Alabama lifeboat, where Phillips is being held hostage by four pirates. Martini is onscreen for less than five minutes, and his dialogue in the film’s final act amounts to “I need sights on target,” “I’m the negotiator,” “I need three targets green,” “release weapons on my command,” “speed up the tow,” “stop the tow,” and “execute.”
Director Kathryn Bigelow and co-screenwriter Mark Boal's follow-up to The Hurt Locker — an Oscar winner in the categories of Best Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture, among others — is, depending on your interpretation, a gritty, almost journalistic dramatization of the hunt for Osama bin Laden, or a propagandistic endorsement of torturing detainees. One thing is for sure: Zero Dark Thirty is the only movie newly available On Demand this week to have elicited criticism from actual lawmakers. (Better luck next time, Bilbo.)
Chris and I took last week off, due to work and travel concerns — there is no truth to the rumor that a media cabal led by Frank Darabont and Bob Greenblatt had us canceled. It turns out we needed the downtime to fully prepare ourselves for the gross orgy of smarm, song, and dance that was the Oscars last night. Although we disagreed strongly on the relative merits of Django Unchained and Moonrise Kingdom, Chris and I were in total agreement on the not-good-enoughness of Argo and especially the ceremony's dreadful host, Seth MacFarlane. We talked through the backstabbing politicking in the weeks leading up to last night (here's the Los Angeles Times piece we mention on the downfall of Zero Dark Thirty), the awards in each major category as well as some potential future fixes, only one of which involves Jessica Chastain and a return visit to Gdansk.
If you're anything like me, you hear the word "guild" and you start thinking about ancient, secret societies of blacksmiths, and then you start thinking about a sweaty dude in an apron slamming a giant hammer into an anvil amid a hail of sparks, and then you start thinking about hammers in general, and then you start thinking about how surprising it was that the movie Thor slayed as hard as it did. And so if you are anything like me, you are an idiot, and you should wipe all that from your brain, because right now we're talking about the Writers Guild Awards, a.k.a. the WGAs, which in actuality have really very little to do with sweaty dudes in aprons.
The first time you heard the name "Megan Ellison," most likely, was when she saved The Master. Paul Thomas Anderson's then-untitled project was on the ropes, Universal having dropped it after cringing at its $35 million budget. And then, wham, Ellison — the now 27-year-old daughter of Oracle founder Larry Ellison, the third richest man in America — swooped in, cut the check, and made Joaquin Phoenix's quivering-arm-on-hip move a national phenomenon (OK, no, not really. But there's still time!) And quickly, a rep was born: Ellison was flush with cash and willing to spend it, straight up, on stuff she liked, thorny projects from prestige names that just weren't getting the studio money they used to. That mentality has translated into a couple of solid flicks (Killing Them Softly, Lawless) and one big screaming winner: Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, which bears Ellison's Annapurna Pictures imprint. Now, with ZDT barging into the Oscars, Vanity Fair has gone ahead and profiled the young Ms. Ellison. And while she didn't actually sit down to talk about herself, luckily, lots of other people did. So what'd we learn?
Surprise, surprise: Very few people said the words "I simply must go see the disgraced former governor of California palling around with a dude who used to get his nuts Tasered on a regular basis" this weekend. In other words: The Last Stand, Arnold's big post– politics and secret-love-child-with-nanny return to the multiplex, flopped at the box office, managing only $6.3 million and a 10th-place finish. My opinion? Johnny Knoxville should have been wearing a dumber hat.
Personally, I've never had the press wage a highly visible veracity-campaign that led to an official Senate Intelligence Committee review into the CIA's factual sourcing of my movie — but I can imagine it's pretty uncomfortable! So hats off to Kathryn Bigelow for the smoothness with which she's handled the debate over Zero Dark Thirty’s torture scenes: Whether it's been on late-night TV or at critics' awards, she's managed to calmly reiterate her quite-convincing message that "depiction is not endorsement, and if it was, no artist could ever portray inhumane practices." In other words: Come on, dudes, you all know some torture went down on the hunt for Bin Laden, and that's why it's in ZDT. I'm not saying it was awesome. I'm just saying it happened. (Special Bonus Hats Off to Bigelow for cooly dealing with this whole HUAC situation while also shrugging off her Oscar snub). Now — whether because she felt the conversation just wasn't going away, or whether she just felt now was the right time to do so — Bigelow has weighed in more expansively, with a piece in the L.A. Times. You can check out the whole thing here, but here's a sampling of the clear, succinct, and logically sound smackdown that Kathryn Bigelow's dropping:
With this year's Oscar nominees snubs, an atypically cohesive consensus has already formed, at least within the Best Director category: no Quentin Tarantino? No Ben Affleck?! No Kathryn Bigelow?!!
Yesterday, attempting to make sense of the peculiarity of the field, our own Wesley Morris wrote, "[the nominated directors'] movies contain no unresolved moral messes for an audience to wrestle with, unlike, say, Zero Dark Thirty, which has been dogged by the torture question ... There are even greater terrors in Django Unchained, but I think the older white men of the directors branch didn't find Tarantino's slaughter of slave owners palatable enough to commend him for it ... Plus, if Django would have waited six or seven years, he could have just been freed by Lincoln. As for Ben Affleck, I think he's made directing look too easy for himself."
But knowing a nation of critics is scratching its heads is small solace for not getting a shot at cuddling up in bed with a shiny new Oscar. So how are our snubbed directors taking it?
You can be honest. When Seth MacFarlane and Emma Stone announced the Oscar nominations this morning, you were nervous they were going to go all Baseball Writers' Association of America and say, "This year there are no nominees." Of course, if you're Ben Affleck or Kathryn Bigelow or even Tom Hooper and Quentin Tarantino, isn't that kind of what happened? 2012 was a strong movie year, and that's pretty much demonstrated by the dozen or so legitimate candidates for the five directing slots, two of which, at least, seemed preordained for Affleck, who made Argo, and Bigelow, who made Zero Dark Thirty. But when the names of Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and Michael Haneke (Amour) and David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook) were called alongside Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) and Ang Lee (Life of Pi), somebody in my one-person living room turned into the Retta Twitter feed and said, "Oh, no they didn't!" But they did. And what did they do?
A new year, a new start for the Hollywood Prospectus Podcast! Or, at least, a new microphone for me. Otherwise it was business as usual as Chris Ryan and I reminisced over how we spent our winter vacation: reading mystery novels (including Len Deighton's Game, Set, Match trilogy and Dashiell Hammett's super trill Red Harvest) and almost dying together by falling from the upper decks of Brooklyn's new Barclays Center.
But the biggest topic left over from 2012 was Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained (11:30). After being goaded into seeing the film over the weekend by our producer, David Jacoby, I was primed to djargue about morality, responsibility, and a certain director's Aussie accent, but we soon circled back to another favorite from last year, Zero Dark Thirty (28:00), and the limitations of revenge. We wrapped up with a look ahead to January TV (36:15), including the arrival of Patton Oswalt on Justified and the continued unhappiness of Chris's no. 1 gal Lady Edith on Downton Abbey. Is it a spoiler if I confess that we're happy to be back?
In Round 1, it was John McCain, during a speech on the Senate floor, blasting Zero Dark Thirty for what he said was its tacit support of enhanced interrogation methods. In Round 2, McCain got backup from his senator buddies Dianne Feinstein and Carl Levin, and together the three sent off a strongly worded letter doubling down on McCain's argument: Enhanced interrogation did not contribute to the capture of Osama bin Laden, but Zero Dark Thirty will convince people it did, and therefore will propagate the continued use of torture. In Round 3, acting CIA director Michael Morell echoed the Big Three's "boooo enhanced interrogation" stance, in a press release of his own knocking the film for inaccuracies. And now we come to Round 4 and the most ominous-sounding news yet: According to Reuters, the Senate Intelligence Committee "has begun a review of contacts between the makers of the film Zero Dark Thirty and CIA officials." Uh-oh!
Hey, we've been gone a while! Since before Christmas, to be exact. And seeing as you've surely spent that time stomping joyously through mountain passes and heartily breathing crisp, fresh, wintry mountain air and expertly plucking fish out of mountain creeks with your bare hands and otherwise avoiding the Internet in favor of life-affirming mountain-based recreational activities, let's catch up on what we missed. The Last Week in Pop Culture Review starts … right now.
For the final Hollywood Prospectus Podcast of the year, Chris Ryan and I, like generations of anthropomorphic snacks before us, headed to the cinema. What were 2012's best films? (The Bourne Legacy, obvs.) Best characters? (Edward Norton in The Bourne Legacy, duh.) Biggest surprises? (That time Jeremy Renner punched a wolf in The Bourne Legacy. Next time bring harder questions!) We were joined by Hollywood Prospectus editor (and Dredd superfan) Mark Lisanti to debate the debate over Zero Dark Thirty, go hunting for Beasts of the Southern Wild, and remember (or misremember) The Master. There may or may not also be mention of Channing Tatum's leather pants. It's the Year in Movies! Listen up and then, as a great cinema legend once said, it's over! Go home!
If you guessed "The Presidential candidate that survived five and a half years as a POW in Vietnam," you guessed correctly. The AP reports:
The movie Zero Dark Thirty suggests the CIA's harsh interrogation techniques led the U.S. to Osama bin Laden. Sen. John McCain watched the movie Monday night and says it left him sick — because it’s wrong. McCain has insisted that the waterboarding of al-Qaida’s No. 3 leader, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, did not provide information that led to the bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. Yet the movie indicates that’s how the United States found the al-Qaida leader [McCain says] the name of bin Laden's courier, Abu Ahmed al-Kuwaiti, came from a detainee held in another country. "Not only did the use of enhanced interrogation techniques on Khalid Sheikh Mohammed not provide us with key leads on bin Laden’s courier, Abu Ahmed, it actually produced false and misleading information," McCain said in a speech on the Senate floor "I do not believe [enhanced interrogation is] necessary to our success in our war against terrorists, as the advocates of these techniques claim they are."